I often get emails asking about the differences between acrylic gels, mediums and pastes.
First, it helps to understand a general principle behind all paint and painting products.
All colored paints are made with basically two components: pigment – for color, and binder (also called medium, vehicle, and in the case of acrylic paints – polymer) which turns the pigment into a usable paint.

Any other product is usually some form of plain binder without any pigment, and is created to help customize your paint. These are used to change some characteristic of the paint itself, or to change a quality of your painting surface. The gels, mediums and pastes all fit in this category. Let’s start with gels and mediums. Gels are basically thick, while mediums are thin and pourable. Acrylic binder is naturally very thin and pourable. Most people assume acrylic is naturally thick – but it’s not. The thin quality of acrylic or polymer is not made by adding water or diluting. It just is naturally thin. So the gels and thick acrylic paints have thickeners added, while mediums have less thickener, and in the case of Golden’s specialty mediums, have none. (Golden’s specialty mediums are labeled GAC100, GAC200, etc. The GAC stands for Golden Artist Colors). All gloss gels and mediums are clear, while matte products have a finely ground white powder added to them, so they are often slightly cloudy or translucent. Pastes are thick and opaque.

Let’s look at how we could use them:

To change the consistency of a paint mixture you would add up to 30% medium to make it thinner, gel to make it thicker, and a specialty medium (GAC100 or GAC500) to eliminate texture altogether.

To make a colored paint more transparent you would make a mixture of paint with binder, but much more binder than color – about 90% binder and 10% color. You would add gloss gel (if you like texture) or a gloss medium (if you want minimal texture). For a very smooth enamel look use GAC100 or GAC500.

To make any color opaque you would add paste.

To cover over an area in your painting you would apply paste to the area (or white paint).

To create a textured ground use a gel with a knife. Gels have lots of thickener – and you have a choice of varying amounts of thickeners in the soft gel, regular gel, heavy gel and extra heavy gel (which has the most and therefore is the stiffest in handling).

To pour acrylic you would think of using a medium, since these are all pourable. However, there are 2 gel exceptions that are better for pouring: Self-Leveling Gel and Clear Tar Gel are both gels, but are pourable. I add small amounts of water to either of these, and pour over a painting to create a clear, glossy “surfboard” finish. I use minimal handling with these, in other words, I don’t use a brush or knife, but tilt the surface to move the “pour”. GAC800 is also a great pouring medium, and is the easiest to use since it isn’t as finicky as the other gels I mentioned, and will give the smoothest surface as it won’t crevice in fast drying climates – like out here in New Mexico where I live. Adding color is an option to any of these ideas.

My book, Acrylic Revolution, has over 100 acrylic painting techniques using gels, mediums and pastes. Click here to read more and/or order the book at a discount from Amazon. 

Nancy Reyner, painter, author and instructor offers assistance to artists in a variety of ways. Click here for more info.